Monday, June 29, 2015

Sights and Sounds of the Land of the Free at a Fuzhou Mall

Yesterday at the large Baolong City Plaza shopping mall in Fuzhou, Fujian province, I stopped to admire a karaoke club advertisement which included a slightly altered Statue of Liberty.

Advertisement for a karaoke club with the Statue of Liberty holding a studio microphone

I then walked into a central courtyard area where a guitarist was either warming up or testing the equipment for a later performance.

central outdoor area of the Baolong City Plaza shopping mall in Fuzhou, China

As I made my way to lower levels, I realized the melody I heard was rather familiar. But simply recognizing it is not what caused me to do a mental double take.

After all, most days in China you don't hear a live performance of The Star Spangled Banner.

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Shaoyang Rainbow

Just over two months ago on the day I arrived Shaoyang, Hunan, I saw something I can't remember having ever seen before in China.

rainbow over a street scene in Shaoyang, Hunan

I had once wondered if I would ever see such a thing.

It was, and is, a special day.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Scenes From the Election Plan Demonstrations in Hong Kong

On Wednesday afternoon last week I observed demonstrations regarding a Beijing-backed election plan. The next day legislators voted down the plan. Below are some of the photos I took at the demonstrations. They aren't intended to provide a complete overview of what I saw, and I will refrain from going into great detail of what or who the photos capture. I share them simply in the spirit of adding a bit of color and perspective to what has already been reported elsewhere.

The main demonstration area was split into two sides.

On the pro-government side:

At times during the hot afternoon, not many people were in the main area.

pro-government demonstration area

Even some speakers couldn't attract a large crowd.

speech given at pro-government rally

Nonetheless, there were plenty of signs ready for people to carry.

pro-government signs

It was hard to estimate the number of people at the time, because it appeared some supporters were outside the main area seeking shade. Some found ways to escape the sun in the main area though.

people sitting in the shade of an outstretched banner

Others made use of umbrellas, with the notable absence of any colored yellow.

man holding maroon-ish umbrella

And there was also a covered portion of the demonstration area which was sometimes crowded during the afternoon. Different organizations representing nearby cities or regions often rotated in and out of the area. The first I noticed represented Guangxi.

people sitting under a sign reading "Federation of HK Guangxi Community Organizations"

Another of the groups I saw represented Shanwei, a city not far from Hong Kong.

people holding flags

One opponent of the plan claimed it was common knowledge that many of these groups were comprised of mainland-Chinese tourists who have either been paid or given special deals on their travel to Hong Kong for their participation. Others claimed that even some of those who lived in Hong Kong had been paid to attend.

But whatever people's motives for attending, various opportunities arose to pose for photos.

man posing for photo

several people posing for a photo

Two rows of railings with a space in between separated the pro-government supporters from those who opposed the Beijing-backed plan. Some people from both sides often gathered at the railings to taunt each other. Earsplitting loudspeakers were a favorite tool.

people holding loudspeakers and Chinese flags

At times, some pro-government supporters found ways to get closer to the other side and tempers flared. I didn't witness any violence, though the yelling could be rather intense.

man wearing shirt with a Chinese flag yelling at people

Elsewhere, one group of men stood in a row while wearing hard-knuckle gloves. When I inquired I was told, "Don't worry. They're just for protection."

people wearing hard-knuckle gloves

As the sun lowered and the work day began to end, the crowds noticeably thickened in the main demonstration area.

crowded pro-government rally

On the side demonstrating against the Beijing-backed proposal:

I didn't see any curious gloves and fewer loudspeakers were in use. But one woman did her best to incite the other side by sticking out her tongue for long periods of time.

woman sticking out her tongue

There seemed to be fewer people on average during the afternoon. Some relaxed on a grassy area.

people siting in a grassy area

Some wore shirts with messages.

young woman wearing a shirt with the definition of "Hongkonger"

Some drew.

man drawing a copy of a photo on a mobile phone

And it was not hard to spot people working for the news media.

man with media badge using his mobile phone

Near the main demonstration area tents had been set up by various organizations and people.

police walking between rows of tents

Typically, the tents were covered with at least a few messages.

a tent with Umbrella Movement signs

And there was even a "Buddhist Court".

the Umbrella Movement Buddhist Court

One of the activities I saw in this area was attended by Joshua Wong (sitting and wearing a black and red shirt), a student leader who has become a public face for the pro-democracy protests.

man giving a speech with Joshua Wong in attendance

Numerous posters and art were displayed.

yellow colored art

And some of the expression had a lighter side to it.

Mickey Mouse yellow umbrella

As with the other side, the crowds significantly increased as the sun lowered and people were able to leave work. In several areas people could watch the speeches now being given by legislators. Before I left, flags were waving on both sides. Most notable was the old British Colony of Hong Kong flag.

old flag for the British Colony of Hong Kong being waved along with the current Hong Kong flag and PRC flag in the background

When I finally left the demonstrations not long before 8pm, I saw one group setting up yet another tent.

people setting up a tent

That is all.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

American Affirmation: A Chinese Man in Chongqing Who Doesn't Like Black People

News on Hong Kong MTR train video monitor showing mass murderer Dylann Roof holding a Confederate flag
News about the U.S. debate over the Confederate flag appearing yesterday inside a Hong Kong MTR train

In China I have seen numerous examples of why the U.S. is considered a leader in soft power, especially in terms of American culture's influence through mediums such as movies, music, and sports. Usually the term "soft power" is used in a positive sense, at least from the perspective of the country yielding the power. One late night earlier this year in Southwest China in the city of Chongqing, though, I saw how American culture's influence isn't always a positive.

That night as I passed by an outdoor night market, a Chinese man and woman in their 20s invited me to join them for barbecued food and beer. I happily accepted, and soon we were speaking about a variety of topics. During our conversation, several young black men sat down at a nearby table. The woman expressed excitement and explained she was extremely interested in meeting them, especially since there are very few black people in Chongqing. She then left to introduce herself and chat. Her sudden and extended departure from her friend seemed awkward to me, but in light of racism being common in China I also saw a positive side to her actions.

As the man and I continued talking, the conversation soon took an unexpected twist. He suddenly stated that he didn't like black people, so I asked him to elaborate. Although his friend's action may have prompted his statement, it didn't appear to be a newly formed belief. After I pushed back against some of his following points, he sat quietly in thought, and I wondered if I had made an impression. A minute or so later he broke his silence and asked, "Are there people in America who don't like black people?"

I replied, "There definitely are." I assumed he was curious about racial issues in the U.S. So I thought it could be valuable to shed some light on the immense challenges the country still faces, despite recent progress.

But before I could continue, he triumphantly declared, "You see. So I'm right."

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Balanced in Hong Kong and Changsha

A street performer last night at Sai Yeung Choi Street South in Mong Kok, Hong Kong:

street performer balancing on a small barrel while twirling hoops and balancing a flower and saucers with a curved rod from his mouth in Hong Kong

A street performer a few weeks ago at Huangxing Middle Road in Changsha, Hunan:

street performer balancing a pyramid of glasses of water on top of a basketball on top of his head in Changsha

Neither performer had any spills or drops while I watched. As seen in the last year's post about Sai Yeung Choi Street South, the Hong Kong performer is not new to the scene.

And that is all for today's excitement here.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Brief View From Hong Kong of a Massacre in Charleston

Today as I rode the metro under Hong Kong's streets and buildings, I looked up at a video monitor and unexpectedly saw Barack Obama:

subway car video screen displaying news of a speech by Barack Obama

Sadly, the news was about the recent massacre in far away Charleston, South Carolina — the latest in a long and all-too-regular stream of mass killings in the U.S.

When similar events in the U.S. have come up in discussions I have had with a variety of people in China, I have often heard bewilderment over why the U.S. has been unable to better address gun violence and why the problem even exists to degree it does in the first place. It seems to put a twist in the concept of "American exceptionalism", especially given how the term is now often used in the U.S. On a related note, The Economist concluded an article about the massacre with a thought-provoking comparison:
Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [the mass killings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.
I am still pondering that one.

Was Hong Kong Lawmakers Missing an Important Vote Really an Accident?

Hong Kong's Legislative Council has spoken and did not pass a Beijing-backed government reform package which would have given Hongkongers the ability to choose their leader from a set of Beijing-approved candidates. The Chinese government has already indicated it will simply disregard the results and expects its plan to be implemented nonetheless. In other words, it appears China will force Hong Kong to have a "democratic" vote that Hong Kong's legislative council has now voted against due to the successful efforts of the pro-democracy camp. Yes, these are special times.

Making the times extra special was a walkout which lead to a number of lawmakers who were expected to support the reform package missing the historic vote, which did not effect the outcome except for causing the numbers for the defeat to appear all the worse. The Hong Kong based South China Morning Post described it as a "botched" effort resulting from a "miscommunication". The Wall Street Journal reported a similar story while providing other details. The New York Times called it an "embarrassing political misstep". None of these accounts question whether the lawmakers truly intended to vote. The same holds true for much of the other reporting and commentary I have seen, including on Twitter.

However, it is easy to think of plausible reasons why these lawmakers may not have wanted to vote for the bill but also not have wanted to displease the Chinese government with an explicit "no" vote or abstention. Perhaps the event was staged so the lawmakers had an excuse to miss the vote, and everything went as planned. On this note, James Pomfret and Clare Baldwin reported some intriguing details for Reuters:
Political analyst Johnny Lau, who has close ties with several pro-Beijing politicians, said a few had expressed privately to him they were considering abstaining to bolster their prospects in the next city-wide legislative polls.

"Some of them told me that they planned this before. They were thinking about the legislative elections next year," Lau said in a telephone interview. "If they voted for the plan, then the democrats could use this as a reason to attack them, so they didn't want to leave a record."
So at the very least, at this point I don't think it can be said with great confidence that the missed voted was indeed an accident. Instead, it is possible the lawmakers felt it was the best move they could make, even if they felt no truly attractive options existed.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

More Yellow in Hong Kong

Umbrella Movement supporter holding a banner and yellow umbrella while posing for a photograph outside Hong Kong's Legislative Council Complex
Umbrella Movement supporter posing for a photograph outside Hong Kong's Legislative Council Complex

Today in Hong Kong I spent some time observing the relatively small but lively demonstrations either supporting or protesting a Beijing-backed bill that would allow Hongkongers to vote for their city's leader with the catch that candidates would need to be approved by the Chinese government. The Legislative Council began debate on the bill today, and it appears headed for defeat.

I will have more related photos to share later. And at some point I hope to also say something deeper about today's and previous protests in Hong Kong.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Visit to Foreigners' Street in Chongqing: Part 1, The Entrance to a Land of No Themes

One day earlier this year while visiting an ancient town in Chongqing, I briefly met a college student. After discussing severing interesting places to see elsewhere in Chongqing, she recommended I visit Foreigners' Street. I asked her what made it so popular with foreigners.

She replied, "Oh, there aren't many foreigners there. Maybe a few."

Confused, I asked, "Then why do they call it 'Foreigners' Street'?"

She explained it had originally been planned as a place where foreigners could open restaurants, bars, and other businesses. But things didn't pan out. She struggled to describe what it had become instead but maintained I should visit it.

As I now know, the place is indeed difficult to describe. Richard Macauley wrote about Foreigners' Street, also know as Yangren Jie, for CNN Travel:
Opened in 2006, it includes all the best of what ain’t from China.

Recreations of international landmarks are dotted about, including a miniature New York, Venetian canals, a 10-meter Christ the Redeemer, a 150-meter-long Great Wall of China (not foreign, but it made the cut) and, from Thailand, an exotic dance show.

Yangren Jie is also known for hosting the largest public bathroom in the world, which checks in at 40,000 square meters.

The park is overly kitschy, which either adds to or detracts from the fun, depending on your point of view.
The full piece is worth reading for the varied opinions Macauley collected from visitors. It is one of those places most enjoyed when appreciated for what it is, whatever that may be.

Multiple English translations for the Chinese name of the park, 美心洋人街 , are in use. "Foreigners' Street" seems to be favored by the park itself, though often "Mexin" is placed at the front. Those familiar with Chinese may now be thinking, "You mean 'Meixin', right?". While I agree that would be the correct Pinyin spelling of the first two Chinese characters, the park consistently uses "Mexin". Like with many other things about the park, I don't know why. Anyway, I leave out the word "Mexin", which appears to be common practice for English accounts in both foreign and Chinese sources.

My single visit in January isn't enough to provide a definitive account of Foreigners' Street. At the very least, I wasn't able to see everything. But I can provide a taste of the wonders it holds by sharing what I saw. My account may seem irreverent at times, but deep reverence appears to have no place at Foreigners' Street.

So here we go . . .

To start, the location is not especially convenient to get to from the most urban areas of Chongqing. I can imagine foreigners long ago strongly questioning the logic of opening a business there. But Foreigners' Street lures in the crowds nonetheless.

Upon arrival near the main entrance, my attention was caught by a large structure connected to an apartment complex.

theater-like entrance to an apartment complex

Not sure what to expect, I walked inside and discovered a rather large open space.

large area underneath the apartment complexes

A variety of activities were ongoing, including some spirited mahjong games.

people standing while playing mahjong in the large indoor area like a large parking lot

For those needing nourishment, some food was available. And not only could you buy baked goods, you could also watch the baking process.

bakery inside a large open building

Despite the signs, I didn't see any Gun Night Beer available at the time though.

sign with words "A Gun Night Beer"

Back outside, I saw there was chairlift / cable car ride to transport people, presumably into the heart of the park.

end point of an aerial lift at Foreigner's Street

5 yuan (about 80 cents U.S.) seemed like a great deal compared to similar rides I had seen elsewhere. And it isn't every day you can ride an aerial lift through a building.

aerial lift going through a building

The line for the lift divided people into the "bold" and the "timid". The bold rode in open chairs. The timid rode in enclosed cars. The extremely timid turned around.

entrance sign indicating lines for "Bold people can sit" and "Timed ride can sit"

On the side of stairs up to the lift, I saw signs declaring "imported". I would have translated the Chinese as "entrance", but "imported" would be appropriate in some contexts and this is Foreigners' Street after all.

line up stairs with signs saying "Imported"

For reasons not related to my boldness, I decided to walk into the park and save the lift for my departure. But first I wanted something to eat. Fortunately, several food vendors were nearby and eager for customers.

street food vendors

I chose one of my favorites, a local style of spicy potatoes.

Chongqing style spicy potatoes

I then passed by the majestic multi-purpose building once more, this time appreciating the outdoor rockers. Some of the people rocking appeared to appreciate my appreciation.

people on several rockers

And finally, I stood at the main entrance to the park. Lest there be any doubt about its theme, a prominent sign proclaimed there wasn't one.

entrance sign for Foreigners' Street (美心洋人街) with the words "NON THEME PARK"

I wondered how a park named "Foreigners' Street" could claim not to have a theme. I then pondered the apparent paradox of a lack of theme being a theme itself. I hadn't even entered the park, and already things felt slightly surreal. This feeling did not go away.

In later posts, this themed themeless adventure will continue.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Passing Moments in Shaoyang

child on tricycle rides by a man doing water calligraphy
At Chengnan Park in Shaoyang, Hunan

A Clarification About Great Ideas for a New Movie

In the previous post I shared photos of two ads for "Mr. Deng Goes to Washington". One ad featured an assortment of guns and knives and the other a cutout of Barack Obama. The post also mentions the movie's focus on Deng Xiaoping's protection during his visit to the U.S. and Chinese media describing an attempt to spray paint Deng as an assassination attempt.

I ended the post with:
One of the questions I am left with after considering the curious use of guns and Obama to promote a film about Deng's historic visit is "If people unfamiliar with the film were presented with only these two advertisements, what would they guess its plot to be and would they want to see it?"

At least they might provide some great ideas for new movies.
I wrote the last sentence without anything much more specific in mind than a) some people may come up with interesting plots, perhaps suitable for action movies, and b) I suspect many of these plots would significantly differ from the advertised movie's. I now appreciate that the post can set up a possible interpretation of the last sentence I did not wish to express or imply. So just in case . . . To be absolutely clear, I was not at all suggesting that a movie about the assassination of Barack Obama would be a great idea.

Now on to other matters . . .

Friday, June 12, 2015

Guns, Knives, and Barack Obama: Promoting "Mr. Deng Goes to Washington" in China

The historical documentary "Mr. Deng Goes to Washington" opened last month in Chinese theaters. The Telegraph summarized the movie and mentioned one of the film's more unusual aspects:
The film tells the story of Deng's nine-day visit to the US in 1979, only a month after China established diplomatic relations with the US for the first time after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Telling stories of Chinese leaders through animation is very rare in China, but Mr Deng Goes to Washington interweaves historical footage, interviews and animated images of Deng.
In a piece on Sinosphere describing challenges the independently produced documentary faced in gaining Chinese government approval, Amy Qin highlighted other details:
The film, which cost $4 million to make, features interviews with important figures on the American side such as President Jimmy Carter; Mr. Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski; and Henry A. Kissinger, national security adviser under President Richard M. Nixon who helped broker the 1972 summit meeting among Mr. Nixon, Premier Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong that paved the way for Mr. Deng’s visit.

By weaving together interviews and footage of Mr. Deng’s visit, much of which was purchased from American media networks, [director Fu Hongxing] said he wanted to help Chinese audiences understand the importance of that visit to China’s present-day success.
Even if the film now seems intriguing, it could be challenging to make a documentary a big draw at Chinese theaters. Advertisements in movie theaters can offer a window into what aspects of a film marketers think will most capture people's attention and encourage them to purchase a ticket. So with all this in mind . . .

Here is a poster I saw for the film at a movie theater in Changsha:

Film poster for "Mr. Deng Goes to Washington" with images of numerous types of guns

The numerous guns and knives aren't what I would expect based on the above descriptions of the movie, but they may reflect Qin's observation that the film "places equal, if not greater, emphasis on Deng’s personal security during his visit as on the content of his meetings and discussions with American leaders." And in The Financial Times Lucy Hornsby shares examples of Chinese media describing an attack on Deng shown in the film as an assassination attempt.

But Hornsby adds a small detail which complicates that story:
In fact, Mr Deng was approached in a hotel lobby by a white supremacist who planned to spray him with red spray paint. The would-be assailant was punched by a member of Mr Deng’s secret service detail.
In other words, the world was ever so close to there now being a documentary titled "Mr. Deng Leaves Washington Redder".

The above poster hasn't been the only advertisement for the film I have seen in a theater. Just over a week before the film's opening day, in Xiangtan, another city in Hunan, I saw one which took a significantly different approach. It displayed a nearly life-size cutout of a person well-recognized in China. But it wasn't Deng Xiaoping:

advertisement for the film "Mr. Deng Goes to Washington" with a near life-size cardboard cutout of Barack Obama extending his left arm

At the time of Deng's visit to the U.S., seventeen year-old Barack Obama probably didn't suspect it would lead to his likeness someday standing in a Hunan movie theater.

One of the questions I am left with after considering the curious use of guns and Obama to promote a film about Deng's historic visit is "If people unfamiliar with the film were presented with only these two advertisements, what would they guess its plot to be and would they want to see it?"

At least they might provide some great ideas for new movies.*

*Added note: I wrote this sentence without anything much more specific in mind than a) some people may come up with interesting plots, perhaps suitable for action movies, and b) I suspect many of these plots would significantly differ from the advertised movie's. After rereading the post, I now appreciate there is another possible interpretation of the sentence, and it is one I did not wish to express or imply. So to be absolutely clear, I am not at all suggesting there should be a movie about the assassination of Barack Obama or that such a movie would be a great idea.